SANTA CRUZ -- After Pacific Collegiate School officials and their supporters called on the Santa Cruz City Schools board to resume negotiations last week over the high-profile charter school's future location, the county's top education official said Monday he will offer to mediate a resolution to the dispute, which has reached a fevered pitch in recent days.

If You Go

WHAT: Pacific Collegiate School Facility Community Forum.
WHEN: 7-8:30 p.m. tonight.
WHERE: Pacific Cllegiate School, 255 Swift St., C Pod.

"It's incumbent for both parties to find common ground to move forward," said Michael Watkins, superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. "I'm willing to put everything on the table."

Watkins made the offer in response to a request last week by county Board of Education Trustee Mary Bryant to form a blue-ribbon panel that would examine possible solutions to the long-brewing imbroglio between the school of roughly 440 students and its landlord, a district of 7,000 students.

The county charters the nine-year-old school, which was first turned down by the district. The school went on to garner national recognition for academic achievement that critics say is attributable to its gaping lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

Watkins said Monday he wasn't sure whether he would pursue creating a blue-ribbon panel right away, but said in the coming days he would contact leaders on both sides about hammering out a deal as tension heightens among parents, teachers and administrators. He has been unsuccessful so far in working out a solution in separate meetings with the two sides; lease negotiations fell apart in April, and the two sides now communicate only through letters and lawyers.

Leaders in both camps said Monday they were willing to hear ideas from the other, but there were no immediate plans to talk. PCS will host a town hall-style meeting tonight, during which the public may ask questions, and the school district board is scheduled to meet in closed session Wednesday to discuss the property matter.

Pacific Collegaite, under a five-year, $1 million lease struck with the district in 2003, has rented the 35,000-square-foot former site of Natural Bridges Elementary, a school the district closed during a fiscal crisis that same year. Negotiations to renew the lease took a nosedive this past spring when PCS officials -- based on their reading of state education law that requires districts to provide facilities for charter school students in their jurisdiction -- offered to pay less than half of the $275,000 the school paid in the final year of the 2003 agreement.

District officials had wanted the charter school to pay close to market value, a price the district has never disclosed despite public information requests by PCS and the Sentinel for copies of a property value assessment cited in the negotiations. PCS officials have said the district wanted the school to pay more than $400,000 per year.

Three weeks ago, Pacific Collegiate filed a request under the Proposition 39 education law for the district to provide facilities for the 60 percent of PCS students who live within the district's boundaries. The district has until Feb. 1 to provide secondary school facilities for its share of PCS students.

Unless a new lease deal is worked out and the Prop. 39 request set aside, the charter school will have to vacate Natural Bridges after the academic year ends next summer. Absent a new deal with the district, PCS officials have threatened to pursue a charter change that would allow them to enroll 90 percent of Santa Cruz children in future years, which would give PCS greater leverage for requesting facilities under the law and take more than $1 million in additional state funding that would have gone to the district.

Meanwhile, PCS officials and advocates showed up en masse to the district's board meeting last week, asking trustees to work on a dual track and resume lease negotiations. The board was not permitted to respond because the lease deal was not on the agenda.

But President Cynthia Hawthorne, who has directed the board's dealings with PCS, said Monday she personally would be willing to listen to any new suggestions that included a specific offer.

"I haven't closed any doors," she said.

However, she said, whether the district would agree to meet with PCS in mediation with Watkins would have to be a decision made by the full board. Trustees are meeting behind closed doors Wednesday.

Deepika Shrestha Ross, Pacific Collegiate board president, said Monday the charter school wants to meet with the district and would consider eventually withdrawing the request if the two sides could get close to a new lease agreement. She said she hopes Watkins is successful in encouraging district officials to bargain.

"I really want to support Michael's efforts in this direction," Shrestha Ross said.

Contact J.M. Brown at 429-2410 or